Saturday, December 30, 2006

Who Knew Suburban KL Could Be This Depressing?

Question: What do James Lee, Tan Chui Mui, and Ho Yuhang have in common?

I) They use a lot of long drawn-out shots in their works
II) They believe film must be used to project the glory of one's race.
III) Very little dialogue is used in their movies
IV) They believe Turkish Star Wars is the best movie... eva!!

A) I only
B) I and III only
C) II and III only
D) IV only

To get the answer, read the review below...

A month back, I met Tan Chui Mui at a screening of various short films at Han Chiang College. My friend and I chatted with her and her pals on bits and pieces of stuff about local alternative films and our still-unnamed film club. Her directoral debut "Love Conquers All" was set for release on Dec 21st. I got several leaflets for her movie, and I was going to be her unofficial "Minister of Propaganda and Advertizing" in the Penang area.

The film had won a couple of awards at the 11th Pusan International Film Festival earlier. All the more to see it, methinks...

Come Dec 21st and I went with several friends to the theatre. There were only five people in the theatre at first... all my friends. But later, we were joined by two more pals and later another ten strangers came in and sat at the back.

One thing I hate about Malaysian cinemas are the barrage of commercials they roll before the film actually starts. Back in 2000, ads never exceeded 15 minutes total. Now, you have to endure 35 minutes of propaganda for beer, cameras, cellphones, cellphones with cameras, sanitary pads, cars, "lifestyle massage chairs" and other stuff. You pay RM9 for this assault on your eyes. Something must be done...

We Malaysians need to act on this commercialist overload. Not by tossing rocks, popcorn, or small animals at the screen (that will get you kicked out), but with sarcastic remarks whenever those adverts play. Feel free to make fun of how Jessica Alba probably never drank more than one sixpack of Tiger in her life. Or those insurance ads where a typical Malaysian family is running around in a field of buttercups and fir trees that probably isn't near Tanjong Malim.

Hey, if you have to endure 30mins of adverts, you may as well make the best out of a terrible situation. Always look at the bright side of life... as Monty Python says.

Anyway, back to the film... which started after the irritating 35 minutes of commercials. Our heroine/protagonist/airhead Ah Ping (Coral Ong) has just moved over from Bukit Mertajam to a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. She gets a job behind the counter at her relative's economy rice stall, located inside a coffeeshop... that looks just like the thousands and thousands of Chinese coffeeshops spread out around the Malaysian landscape.

One thing Tan Chui Mui succeeds in this film is to make everyday items & objects seem mundane and at worst... depressing; all-metal chup-fan stalls, generic kopitiams in single shoplots, public phones, even the all bright-orange bowls, plates, chopsticks and spoons that Ah Ping, her cousin Mei (nicely played by Jiun Jiun Leong), and her aunt uses for their meals. A sense of suburban loneliness and ennui haunts most of the film; occasionally broken thanks to the young Mei with her young optimism and childish but amusing innocence.

In comes Stephen Chua's character, John. Taken in by Ah Ping The Small-Town Girl, he starts following her around to the point of creepiness. And this is where I call Ah Ping an airhead. Because when you have a dodgy looking stranger shadowing you through dark streets and proclaiming his crush on you, basically you should have alarm bells going off in your brain and your hand ready around the pepper spray. But no... she eventually falls for John, even after he takes her on a psycho ride in his Ford and refusing to stop the car unless she professed her love for him. And John's car went on and on till next morning, finally running out of gas in Mukhsinland.

To explain that word a little, they both ran out of petrol near a rural village (kampong). From the urbanized brick n’ concrete of Lee, Ho, and Tan’s world, John and Ah Ping had crossed through the portal into Yasmin Ahmad’s dimension. I expected to see Orked pedaling past on a bicycle at some point.

And here is where our benevolent, all protecting Film Censorship Board displays its numbing ridiculousness: John steps up to the front door of a village house and wishes… “TOOT!” And again… “TOOT!”

Hm, did he say “Fuck you”? No

Did he threaten “Hey old man! Open the fucking door NOW or we’re busting in… ‘Straw-Dogs’ style”? Nope.

It was “Assalammualaikum”, the Arabic greeting. Apparently non-Muslims and Muslims aren’t supposed to greet each other in a language used by Muslims, Christians, and sometimes Jews from the Levant and Arabian Peninsular. Funny, as my Muslim friends and I have done that on many occasions ever since primary school, untill today.

Well, I can now sleep soundly knowing we’re on the right path to much-needed racial and religious understanding in this country. Under the benevolent eyes of our moral defenders in the Censorship Board.

Later, a side character utters “Kan Nin!!” back at Ah Ping’s economy rice stall, uncensored and unbleeped. That means “Fuck You!!” in Cantonese. The censors obviously missed that one.

* * * *

"Girls are stupid. They think love conquers all..."

So says John to Ah Ping, after they both meet his Thai or Indian cousin at a mamak stall. He explains his "cousin" apparently gets a new girlfriend frequently... and then manipulates them into prostitution. A forecast of what's to happen. A warning. Straight from the lion's mouth. And still, Ah Ping hangs onto him.

Love Conquers All. As my friend who came along pointed out, perhaps thats the irony in the title and plot. And love conquered all in this film. All, including Reason, Logic, and Streetwise-ness. Which made Ah Ping cheat on her current boyfriend in Penang and hook up with this... person.

Perhaps, as my friend added, its TC Mui's way of criticism of the media and society's view on the concept of love & relationships. On societal norms that pressures single folks to quickly look for a mate as fast as you can... speed over compatibility. "Happily Ever After", "You're not complete without a man/woman", "When you getting married? You 24 already ah!"

But at the end, where one story ends sadly, another may just be beginning… fuelled by cheeriness and optimism.

Those of you who've seen "Rain Dogs" and James Lee's "Beautiful Washing Machine" would have observed MANY similarities between the three films. No surprise the three directors and have been involved in each others films, in one role or another. Like Lee and Ho, Tan Chui Mui uses visuals extensively to tell the story. You'll find little dialogue between characters. The scenes and their body language shall tell the story more than their own conversations.

James Lee's cinema style is prevalent here... characters are filmed with their backs to the camera and followed around. You'll see it in "Washing Machine". You probably saw it in "Rain Dogs". And you'll see it here too. Complementing the use of visuals and less dialogue are the very long outtakes. However, sometimes those loooong scenes will drag on focusing on the character(s) who seem to be doing something like walking, or using the phone. And then the sudden cut to the next scene...

And this is where I have the thankless task to throw a brick or two...

Tan Chui Mui does well in her first film in shrouding the suburban KL scene with a fog of depression. However, as another friend put it, she doesn’t really do much to tell in a new angle, the all-familiar cautionary tale of a girl who falls into bad company in the big city. I found the use and execution of the long takes to be very overdone and repetitive, nearly making the movie unbearable. A few were somewhat pointless, like the one of a coconut palm filmed against a backdrop of blue sky. Nice perhaps, but does it add to the story and background of Ah Ping & John hanging out in the front porch of the kampong house?

While The “Beautiful Washing Machine” and “Rain Dogs” transitions its scenes somewhat finely but with bumps here and there, Tan does hers rather suddenly. It’s as if you’re driving at 80 on this segmented concrete bridge, and each segment is five to six inches higher than the next.

It would be great if the Three Directors explore new grounds and innovations in their filmmaking, especially the cinematography. I fear that eventual reuse/overuse of the same formula in their next films may result in disappointment amongst local film-goers who have been looking towards fresh offerings from Malaysia’s alt-film world.

Despite its drawbacks, Love Conquers All is a decent, although rough debut for Tan Chui Mui. There is room for improvement in her later works. All in all, I have to give Love Conquers All 2.5 stars out of 5. To be more accurate, 5.3 on a scale of 10.

Another review by Ben McKay at Kakiseni.

How about another by Swifty?


democracy4now said...

Well said, `cautionary tale' -it is a bit sad to note that this `tale' had been around since 30 years ago over mainstream media (radio/tvs) -but now recycled as an `alternative' movie. Wonder if this is not another way to make something `safe' by copying the mainstream ?

The Great Swifty said...

Yeap, great review. I actually DID thought that the dude was swearing when I heard the bleep, and I was staring blankly at the screen, wondering why was he swearing at the house. I thought TCM was, well, being funny.